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Who were the ancestors? The origins of Chinese ancestral cult and racial myths.


Ancestor worship has been a dominant religious form in ancient as well as modern China. It has shaped thought and behaviour for millennia, and has been used by elites as propaganda legitimizing their political positions. Ancestors can be created and modified, so the nature of the ancestral cult has changed through time. Using archaeological data from China, this article first enables an exploration of the earliest manifestations and the development of ancestor-worship ritual in the Neolithic period; secondly, demonstrates that lineage/tribal ancestors became state deities in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1100 BC); and, thirdly, investigates the process in modern history by which a legendary sage, the Yellow Emperor, was first transformed into the progenitor of the Han Chinese, and then into the common ancestor of all Chinese people.

From group ancestors to individual ancestors

Ancestor veneration is a process of ritual activity that can be reconstructed by analysing archaeological material remains showing a non-random pattern of use and discard offering insights into the nature of the ritual itself (McAnany 1994: 20). Neolithic burial sites (4500-4200 BC) in China suggest that ancestor-worship has gone through a changing course of ritual practice (see Liu in press and 1996 for general references).

Four types of Neolithic ritual involving ancestor veneration have been recognized. The first type is the 'group-ancestor worship' mortuary pattern of the early-mid Banpo phase of the Yangshao culture (c. 4500-4200 BC) at Longgangsi cemetery, southern Shaanxi. The material remains from the 168 graves and 150 sacrificial pits indicate a non-hierarchical social organization, where ancestor cult was probably conducted on behalf of and for the common interests of the entire community. The pits, around the edge of the cemetery, were clearly associated with the whole cemetery (Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology 1990: 11, 67).

The second Neolithic ritual type shows females exclusion from the 'group ancestors' as revealed in several multiple secondary burial sites of the Shijia phase (c. 4300-4000 BC) of the Yangshao culture. For example, at the Shijia site in central Shaanxi, where patrilocality and return burial or re-burial may have been practised (Gao & Lee 1993). Burial patterns suggest that women who married outside the village were excluded from ritual transformation to ancestral status, whereas the rest were eligible for such status. Although the communities can be characterized as non-stratified societies (based on the egalitarian distribution of burial goods), burial treatment was at many levels, according to each individual's economic and political contributions to the natal communities.

The third type of ancestral cult practice identified was one devoted to the worship of individuals. It occurred at Yangshan, Qinghai (middle-late Banshan phase of the Majiayao culture, c. 2500-2300 BC) in a society with little sign of socio-economic stratification. This burial site included contemporary and later sacrificial pits associated with two graves containing high-status objects (pottery drums, large stone axes and marble ornaments) (Qinghai Institute of Archaeology 1990). Although economically unstratified, the burials include influential military and religious individuals who were venerated as ancestors and continuously received ritual offerings for many years.

In the fourth type, ancestor worship was both oriented towards the individual, and intertwined with hierarchical social systems, as observed at Longshan culture sites (c. 2600-2000 BC). For example, at Chengzi, cemetery burials fall into four ranks based on the quality of grave furnishings, and rich graves are associated with sacrificial pits (Antiquity Management Bureau in Chengwei 1980). The cemetery is in two sections occupied by kin groups of different social strata. Those ancestors who received long-term ritual offerings were high-status individuals of prominent families and lineages. The ritual ceremonies were probably conducted by kin groups, and ancestral cult ritual became part of political institutions, reinforcing the stratified, although still kinship-based, social system.

Although limited, the data suggests regional variation, and ancestral cults probably did not evolve through a unilinear progression, but underwent many changes through time.

From tribal heroes to state deities

The significant role of ancestor-worship ritual in the political systems of the late Neolithic shows a considerable degree of similarity to the case of the Shang dynasty, in which religious power, political power and kinship relations were inextricably inter-linked in the dynastic institution. In the Shang dynasty the ritual of ancestor worship became institutionalized, and the state was permeated with a commitment to the ancestors. Beliefs included notions that the high god Di conferred fruitful harvest and divine assistance in battle. Royal ancestors could intercede with Di, and enable the king to communicate with his ancestors. Worship of the Shang royal ancestors, therefore, provided powerful psychological and ideological support for the political dominance of the Shang kings (Keightley 1978: 212-13). The prosperity of the state appeared to be ensured by correct ritual procedures conducted by the Shang kings, such as performance of sacrificial offerings and divination to ancestors. In this way, Shang religion was inextricably involved in the genesis and legitimization of the state.

Two categories of ancestors, legendary and historical, received ritual offerings from the Shang state in return for prosperity. The first category includes the genealogically recorded kings, such as Shangjia and Tang, who came from the royal lineages. The second category includes those legendary tribal heroes and founding ancestors of the Shang such as Ku and Qi. Legendary tribal heroes were thought to have supernatural abilities, but there is little evidence for a direct blood relationship with the Shang royal lineages (Song 1994: 505-7; Sun 1987: 242-4).

The Shang historical ancestors were frequently recorded in oracle-bone inscriptions found at the late Shang capital city Anyang (c. 1370-1100 BC). Veneration included human and animal sacrifices, such as the 2000 pits found near 11 large royal tombs at the Anyang royal cemetery at Xibeigang (Institute of Archaeology, CASS 1994: 100-21). Similar sacrificial burials and pits, containing human and animal remains, dark ash, charcoal fragments and burnt bones of animals, were found to be associated with the ancestral temple foundations at Xiaotun, Anyang (Institute of Archaeology, CASS 1994: 51-69). Such ritual offerings at royal burial sites reinforced the mortuary tradition of the ritual of ancestral worship at grave sites that continued from the Neolithic period. Ancestral temples represented a new phenomenon for ritual offerings for the spirits of all the dead kings, including those remote ancestors who were not buried near the capital city.

Ancestral-cult rituals became increasingly hierarchical during the Three Dynasties. While the ancestors were ranked in a diminishing order of status and divine power based on seniority (Keightley 1978: 216-20), living persons could only worship ancestors whose seniority and rank corresponded to their own. While royals and nobles had rights to build ancestral temples devoted to worshipping remote ancestors, commoners could only venerate their immediate family forebears at home (Song 1994: 507). Evidently only kings could worship the high god, the legendary ancestors and royal ancestors.

Myths of ancestral origin, similar to those of the Shang, were also associated with the Xia and Zhou peoples (Chang 1983: 9-15). The legendary ancestors may have been the most crucial force for providing legitimacy to the early dynastic kings, since they were symbolic, impersonal and morally superior. Their creation constructed a divine linkage between supernatural beings and the royal lineages. Legendary ancestors were regarded as powerful deities associated with all the groups in the state, which may or may not have been blood-related. The creation of this remote yet common ancestor, therefore, assisted the state to become hierarchically organized on the basis of assumed blood relations. The formation of legendary ancestors was more a political strategy than a religious phenomenon, since their power resided in the genealogical remoteness, great deeds, ambigious blood-relationships and a psychological and symbolic connection with everybody who claimed a close relationship. They were symbolic idols which could be manipulated by the ruling elites for their political needs. As demonstrated below, the characteristics which focused on the creation of the founding ancestors of the Three Dynasties were largely inherited in late historical times.

In addition to the clan ancestors of the Three Dynasties, remote, legendary and mythical ancestors who were more abstract in nature, but more powerful morally, included 'the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors' (sanhuang wudi). These remote legendary ancestors were ultra-lineage/clan deities which were probably created during the Shang and Zhou period (Xu 1985: 201). Since their appearance coincides with a process of socio-political integration under way, particularly as dynastic power gained control over multi lineage/clan groups, the formation of these new deities was probably a religious innovation in response to the development of an integrated social system.

The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) has been the most influential of these remote legendary ancestors. Not only was he worshipped in ancient times, but he continues to receive ritual offerings today. His status has soared in recent years, and he is now regarded as the common ancestor of all Chinese people, including non-Han ethnic groups.

The national ancestor in the making

The Yellow Emperor (see Chang 1983:42 for references) was traditionally believed to be associated with a tribal group that lived near the Ju River in today's Huangling county, northern Shaanxi. According to legend, the Yellow Emperor's mother became pregnant when she encountered a thunderstorm in the field, and then gave birth to her son after 24 months of pregnancy. Following a military victory against the evil king, Chiyou, the Yellow Emperor became the first great warrior among the sage ancestors. A benevolent and wise ruler, he was credited with numerous inventions, including (to name a few) the water well, carriage, boat, bronze mirror, housing, market, law and ritual regulations, music, currency, clothing and headdress, cooking pot and steamer, crossbow and umbrella (Zhang et al. 1993: 212-16). Archaeology offers no support for the supernatural birth and great material inventions traditionally attributed to the Yellow Emperor. The textual accounts relating to the Yellow Emperor apparently resulted from repeated modifications and revisions through history. The Yellow Emperor's reputation for charismatic abilities increased through time (Gu 1963), and the stories about his achievements became more detailed and sophisticated in more recent texts.

The important questions we need to ask are: when, how and why did the Yellow Emperor become the common ancestor of the Chinese nation? By examining the construction, renovation, and management of the Yellow Emperor Mausoleum, and by investigating ritual ceremonies performed there through history, I will explore the changing role of the Yellow Emperor as a deified ancestor in relation to broad socio-political transformations, especially in modern times. As demonstrated below, it is mainly for the political needs of living elites that the Yellow Emperor has been progressively upgraded to an ever more exalted divine status, from a mythical hero king to the progenitor of the Han race, and finally to the founding ancestor of the Chinese nation. This process parallels the development of national self-consciousness and changing concepts of nationalism in modern Chinese history.

The Yellow Emperor Mausoleum

The earliest record of ritual ceremony directed to the Yellow Emperor and conducted by dynastic kings and emperors can be traced to the Warring States period (422 BC), when king Ling of the Qin state built the Shangsi Temple in Wuyang to venerate the Yellow Emperor. Such ceremonies have continued through the successive dynastic eras (Zhang et al. 1993). Temples and tombs designated to the Yellow Emperor have been built in several locations in China. Nevertheless the Yellow Emperor Mausoleum (Huangdi Ling) in Mt Qiao (Qiaoshan), Huangling county, Shaanxi, has the best claim to authenticity.

Today, the Yellow Emperor Mausoleum on Mt Qiao includes two sections: the gravesite [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] and the temple compound. The gravesite, located on the western side of the Mt. Qiao, was probably first made during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) (Yao & He 1996: 145-6). The construction of the Mausoleum was completed with the building of the temple compound during the Dali era of Emperor Daizong in the Tang dynasty (AD 766-779). The Mausoleum was later moved to its present location on the eastern side of the Mt Qiao in the fifth year of the Kaibao era of Emperor Taizu in the Song dynasty (AD 972) (Zhang et al. 1993: 21617). From AD 1325 to 1963, the Mausoleum was renovated 14 times. It has been officially designated the location for the performance of ritual ceremonies to the Yellow Emperor, by successive imperial courts and the Republic and Communist governments. Today, the Mausoleum is run by the Cultural Relics Management Bureau of Huangling County established in the 1950s (Lan 1994: 113-17).

The Mausoleum contains many objects associated with the Yellow Emperor; for example an ancient cypress tree in the compound reputedly planted by the Yellow Emperor [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED], and a stone said to be impressed with his giant footprints [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. A horn-shaped cypress tree, near the tomb believed to be the Yellow Emperor's, is supposedly transformed from the antler of the dragon which carried him to heaven. The image of the Yellow Emperor [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED], carved on a stone tablet (a modern product), is housed in the temple [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED]. Beginning from the Ming dynasty (AD 13681644), many elegiac addresses to the Yellow Emperor written by emperors and high officials have been carved on stelae. Today, some 79 elegiac addresses dating from 1371 to 1991 have survived; among these 33 were carved on stelae which are kept in the temple compound (Lan 1994: 93) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 6 OMITTED].

Becoming the progenitor of the Han Chinese

According to historical texts, the Yellow Emperor was a tribal leader. His offspring later became established and multiplied in many places throughout China. Many later dynastic courts and ethnic groups claimed genealogical relationships with the Yellow Emperor (Li 1996; Yu 1987). It is not clear, however, to what extent, these relationships were true or were created in later periods (Gu 1963). In both ancient textual records and the elegiac addresses predating 1908, the Yellow Emperor was mostly regarded as a benevolent and moral ruler, a great warrior and an inventor, but was never specified as the common ancestor of the whole nation or country. Given the fact that numerous deities and ancestral heroes were worshipped in ancient China, the Yellow Emperor was probably treated as one of the powerful deities and as one of many deified ancestors.

In the past, funeral rituals for the Yellow Emperor were conducted not only by dynastic rulers who were Han Chinese in origin, but also by those who belonged to non-Han groups, such as the Mongols of the Yuan (AD 1271-1368) and the Manchus of the Qing (AD 1644-1911) although these people did not necessarily acknowledge the Yellow Emperor as their ancestor. In the Qing dynasty, the Manchu emperors performed ritual ceremonies to the Yellow Emperor 26 times during the 267 years of their reign. In these addresses (including one written in Manchu by Emperor Kangxi - AD 1662-1722), the Yellow Emperor was clearly designated as a great king and warrior, but never mentioned as an ancestor [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 7 OMITTED].

The earliest explicit mention of the Yellow Emperor as the founding ancestor of the Chinese people was in the elegiac address written by the Shaanxi Branch of the Tongmeng Hui (United League) in 1908. The Tongmeng Hui address was made at a time when China was going through a period of profound social transformation. Struggling against the aggression of foreign forces and the corruption and incompetence of the Manchu imperial court, radical revolutionaries promoted national self-consciousness and nationalism based on the Han race. They advocated a form of racial or ethnic nationalism (Dikotter 1992: 123-5; Townsend 1996).(1)

The revolutionaries used the Yellow Emperor as the first ancestor of the Han race, the Chinese national symbol in advocating Han racial/ethnic nationalism. His portraits served as the frontispiece in their publications, the Yellow Emperor calendrical system was created, based on his supposed reign (2697-2597 BC) (Dikotter 1992: 116-23), and banknotes with the image and chronology of the Yellow Emperor were issued (Zhongguo Lidai Huobi Bianjizu 1982: 77, 79) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 8 OMITTED]. The Tongmeng Hui elegiac address is consistent with this nationalist movement and was dated to the year 4605 of the Yellow Emperor's Reign. In it he was named 'our royal ancestor' (wo huangzu); the Manchu imperial court was accused of being barbarians who betrayed the country to the European foreigners, and the revolutionaries called for the restoration of the Han Chinese nation (fu Hanzu zhiye). The address also marked the beginning of the Yellow Emperor's position as national ancestor in ritual ceremonies held in the Mausoleum, and this title results from the political propaganda at the beginning of the 20th century.

Becoming the founding ancestor of the Chinese nation

The status of the Yellow Emperor has been enhanced over the 20th century, as the National Ancestor. For example, ceremonials held by various governments included numerous elegaic addresses referring to the 'founding ancestor of the Chinese nation' (Zhonghua minzu shizu), or as the 'founding ancestor of Chinese state' (wo kaiguo shizu), or even as the 'founding ancestor of human civilization' (renwen shizu) (Zhang et al. 1993: 129-65). (There were 16 such addresses between 1911 and 1949, and 19 between 1949 and 1991 (Lan 1994: 93.)

After the 1911 revolution, the concept of nationalism moved from a racialist/ethnocentric orientation to a state-based political entity. The 'Five Races in Unity' of the Nationalist Era (wu zu gong he), which included Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchurians, Xinjiangese and the Han, claimed to comprise the people of the Chinese nation (Chiang 1947). The Yellow Emperor as a racially orientated symbol became irrelevant during the ensuing political movements of the nationalist evolution, the rise of communist party, the Sino-Japanese war and the civil war.

Instead, as these governments attempted to unite China's multi-ethnic population into a viable political unit, the Yellow Emperor changed to a national symbol of a racially amalgamated descent group which embraced many non-Han ethnic peoples.

Although the 'historic' truth of the ancestral claims of the Yellow Emperor has been challenged (Ge 1996; Gu 1963) other scholars promote the idea of national symbol (Li 1990: 22), suggesting that, as a national symbol, the Yellow Emperor should be considered as culturally, rather than genealogically, related to the modern population of China. Others still attempt to find textual evidence to support notions that the Yellow Emperor was the consanguineous common ancestor of many ethnic groups in China. The growing concept of Chinese nationalism has extended to cover major non-Han races, from the 'Five Races in Unity' of the Republican era, to include all modern Chinese citizens (Chen 1996). Consequently, the term 'descendants of the Yellow Emperor' (Huangdi zisun) now refers to many ethnic groups, including Tibetan, Hui, Miao, Li, Mongol and Manchu among others (Yu 1987; Li 1996), and the concept of Chinese race/nation (Zhonghua minzu) extends to all the 56 ethnic groups in China (Gu 1989: 37).(2)

The Mausoleum as a political showcase

Recent history offers many examples where the Yellow Emperor Mausoleum was used for propaganda by political groups and individuals in ritual ceremonies enhancing and legitimizing their positions. This includes Sun Yat-sen commemorating the Yellow Emperor in 1912, a year after the establishment of the first republican government in China ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 9 OMITTED], in front). Similarly, in 1937 Mao Zedong and Zhu De, representing the Communist government and the Red Army, made ritual offerings (fruits and flowers). Mao's elegiac address [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 10 OMITTED] called for Chinese solidarity against Japanese invasion, when the Communist Party needed to collaborate with the Republican government and struggle against the Japanese. Chiang Kaishek, the President of the Republic, wrote a calligraphic dedication, 'Tomb of the Yellow Emperor' (Huangdi Ling), in 1942 during the Sino-Japanese War ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 9 OMITTED], behind). Similarly, the Prime Minister Li Peng and the President Jiang Zemin made commemorations to the Yellow Emperor in 1992 and 1993 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 11 OMITTED], following the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, to restore their political power and increase their national and international reputation. The Yellow Emperor has been used as a divine symbol, and through ancestral-worship ritual, elites - descended from glorious founding ancestors - continue to boost their legitimacy to political power.

The Mausoleum has many propaganda roles, such as the Tongzhan 'united front' attempting to unify Chinese resident overseas. The appeal is not just spiritual, but also economic. Many of these, unable to return home for decades, nostalgically regard the Mausoleum as a spiritual support [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 12 OMITTED] linking them to their homeland and ancestral kin. This nostalgia is expressed in visiting ancestral burials, which gives a sense of belonging to, and represents continuity from, Confucian ancestor worship.

Changing economic needs at home and investments demands from abroad have resulted in a spiritual attachment to the Yellow Emperor which now converge on the Mausoleum.

The Chinese government has organized large-scale ritual activities associated with fund-raising to renovate the Mausoleum. The Yellow Emperor Mausoleum Foundation (Huangdi Ling Jijinhui) was established in 1992. By February 1997, the Foundation had raised more than 33 million Renminbi (4 million US dollars) from individuals and institutions in China and abroad (Huangdi Ling Jijinhui 1997: 20-31). The renovation has become a massive construction project, with the promise that individuals and institutions who contribute to the construction will have their names carved on commemorative objects (Huangdi Ling Jijinhui 1996).

As a political showcase the Mausoleum includes stelae of various politicians. These have been re-arranged to reflect the aspirations of overseas donors and the various hierarchial subtleties of past political leaders (for example, those by Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek are placed opposite the one by Mao Zedong. Chiang Kai-shek's recently reinstalled stela had originally been erected in the front of the tomb and was destroyed decades ago. Its 1950s replacement has a commemoration by former Head of the Ministry of Culture, Guo Muoruo.)

In modern times, as in the Three Dynasties, ancestor-worship is a political strategy. On the state level, the modern ancestral cult can be seen as the deliberate manipulation of a set of religious concepts derived from the early dynastic period. Deified ancestors have been created and used by the living to pursue political and economic objectives, while ancestral temples and gravesites have been used to make propaganda statements in support of the political legitimacy of elites. The cult of the Yellow Emperor, designated as the ancestor of ever broader descent groups, is thus a historical product of a series of political movements.


Concepts of Chinese ancestors and patterns of ancestral worship have been subject to change throughout history, relating to general sociopolitical transformations. In the Neolithic period the ritual changed from 'group ancestor worship' to 'individual ancestor worship', paralleling the transition of social organization from non-stratified to stratified. The latter form of this ritual practice seems to have deeply influenced the Shang dynasty's religious and political systems. Becoming highly hierarchical and institutionalized in nature, ancestral-worship ritual provided the ideological basis and legitimacy for the rule of Shang royal lineages. A similar strategy has been employed by elite groups throughout Chinese history, and the modern example of the Yellow Emperor cult illustrates the peak of this practice. The increasing elevation of the Yellow Emperor to the status of common ancestor of first the Han Chinese, and then the entire Chinese nation, has occurred in stages. The Yellow Emperor is a symbolic idol which has been created, modified and utilized, not only by the elites, but also by ordinary people who have been searching for a common ground to satisfy their spiritual, psychological, political and economic needs. From this perspective, modern politics seems to be successfully supported and fulfilled by archaeology, history, legend and religion.

Acknowledgements. I am grateful to Li Min and Chen Xingcan, who provided important references and comments. I especially thank my Chinese colleagues in the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology who assisted this research project. Appreciation also goes to Thomas Bartlett, David Frankel and Clare Fawcett, who edited the previous drafts. Without the support and help from the above individuals the completion of this research would have been impossible. However, I am responsible for all imperfections in this work.

1 The Tongmeng Hui was a political organization, which played an important role in this social movement. Led by Sun Yat-sen, who later became the first president of Chinese Republic in 1911, a major objective of the Tongmeng Hui was to overthrow the Manchu Qing dynasty and to establish a republic of Han Chinese (Gasster 1969: 65-151).

2 As I saw for myself in 1997, the above-mentioned stela bearing Emperor Kangxi's address to the Yellow Emperor written in the Manchu language [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 7 OMITTED] is currently interpreted by tour guides as the evidence that the Manchus indeed acknowledged the Yellow Emperor as their ancestor.


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Date:Sep 1, 1999
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